Imagine...opening up your e-mail, only to find your entire inbox and folders gone! "At first, I was like, this can't be true." But, it was. Alexandria Felton's entire web-based e-mail account--wiped out. Years of business and personal documents, family pictures, an itinerary for an upcoming trip- lost without a trace. "I kind of felt like, 'Oh, my god.' I was a little frantic. You just don't expect something like that would happen," says Felton.
When she called her online service provider, they told her they couldn't get her files back. "They apologized and that was it. I was like completely shocked," says Felton. So, how did years of e-mail just disappear? Alexandria's service provider told her it was an isolated incident due to "system events." Brian Cooley with C-Net says if your e-mail is stored on the company's server, a glitch could happen during a system update. "Just doing a backup one night, or updating the software that runs their system, and data gets lost. It happens when most of us work on our own computers -- we lose files.
They're not perfect, either," says Cooley. Your files can also be lost if a hacker gets a hold of your user name and password. Or with "free mail" services, if you don't log onto your account for some time which can be as little as 30 days. "They will do housekeeping and inactive accounts will get deleted. Your files will be gone; your inbox will be cleared out; your actual account won't exist anymore," says Cooley. But, experts say no matter how the files are lost, you have little recourse. It's all spelled out in the sites' terms and conditions. "No one ever reads these things, so they don't realize that they're signing a document that says, 'We'll do our best and if it crashes, tough luck.'," says Cooley. "Digital data isn't like paper. It degrades 100 percent. As soon as it's gone, it's gone."
A stark reality for e-mailers like Alexandria. "That's really scary," she says. Especially now that e-mail service providers are offering more and more storage to customers. "People will start keeping very valuable files there. To keep your only copy of that on an online free service is nuts," says Cooley. Robyn Peterson with PC Magazine adds, "It's very important to backup your important mail in a second area." Like right onto you hard drive or burn it onto a CD. "If your web mail goes down, if your account becomes inactive and all your important documents are deleted, you'll have another copy," says Peterson.
There are also companies that will automatically do the backing up for you, for a fee. "The people who would want to consider using an online storage provider are those people with extremely important documents, documents they couldn't live or work without," says Peterson. Alexandria says she isn't paying for a service, but is now backing up her files onto her hard drive even printing some out. She says if "you've got mail," don't take it for granted. "Understand the risk of having especially really important e-mail on there. As much as possible, just make sure you have a backup," says Felton.